Sunday, January 14, 2007

Finding an internal locus of control

John 5:30: "I can do nothing on my own authority; I judge only as God tells me, so my judgment is right, because I am not trying to do what I want, but only what he who sent me wants”.

In this article, Daniela Kramer and Michael Moore highlight areas where religion and secular psychology are in conflict. One of the main contrasts between the two is that of the concept of locus of control. According to this article, locus of control orientation . . .

“is a belief about whether the outcomes of our actions are contingent on what we do (internal control orientation) or on events outside our personal control (external control orientation)."

In other words, individuals who are said to have an internal locus of control believe that they control their own destiny and that they make things happen, while those with an external locus of control believe that their successes, failures and other events in their lives are caused by luck or fate, and that circumstances are beyond their control.

There are advantages and disadvantages with both, but secular psychology generally considers an internal locus of control the healthier position of the two. Those with an internal locus of control tend to take more responsibility for their behaviour, while those with an external locus of control tend to be more anxious about the world around them.

Kramer and Moore argue that Christianity promotes an external locus of control by discouraging the individual from exercising her/his own will. Thinking back to when I was a Christian, I can easily remember how I was encouraged to adopt an external locus of control by (1) submitting to the belief that God knows better: no matter what happens, I should trust him; (2) thinking that events in my life happened according to God’s will; (3) adopting the beliefs of the church without thinking them through (on topics such as homosexuality, evolution, abortion, etc); and (4) viewing Christ as the final authority of my life. In other words, I believed that the course of my life was directed by an outside source. The question is: was this a healthy belief?

One can argue that it is easy to submit your life to someone else entirely, for them to make the decisions and to tell you what to do, whom to marry, where to go, what to say, and how to live. It releases you of responsibility. It allows you to blame something else (e.g., the devil or sin) for your mistakes. But doesn’t such extreme submission - which fundamentalist Christianity preaches - destroy one’s individuality, pride and self-esteem? As an individual, is it not healthier to make your own decisions and your own mistakes? Is it not better to take charge of your own life and to carve out your own destiny?


CyberKitten said...

KP said: As an individual, is it not healthier to make your own decisions and your own mistakes? Is it not better to take charge of your own life and to carve out your own destiny?

Well, duh! Of course it is [grin]. Internal locus all the way...

Anonymous said...

The passage in John does not talk about 'a Christian' but about Jesus stating that he receives his authority from the Father and that he wants to do his Father's will. Christians indeed also want to do God's will, but they can never be as sure of that (what it means to do God's will) as Jesus was. Christians are responsible for their behaviour and choices, good or bad. The Bible might teach them what is good or bad and Christians do differ a lot about what that implies. They have to make their own decisions. But they do believe that their 'destiny' is not in their hands and there can be great comfort in that. Do you really believe anybody can really take 'their destiny' completely in their hands? There are so many uncertain factors in life. What if you were born in a shack with no real future ahead???Isn't it good to know you are part of a bigger picture??? Life is complicated:) Geertje

Anonymous said...

Don't forget about:

(1) socialists and communists who explain poverty in terms of external factors rather than conservatives who explain it in terms of individual hard work. Liberals refer to poor people as the "less fortunate" because we all known wealth and poverty are about "winning life's lottery." Its all about luck and fortune.

(2) The Jesse Jackson types who explain African American failures in terms of white racism rather than internal cultural factors. Don't forget about "institutional racism."

(3) Feminists must be wrong when they claim that females are held down by external factors and "structural sexism" in society.

Yep, your internal control/external control distinction is not at all too simplistic. You're right, religious people must be as inferior as poor people, African Americans, and women. Thanks for enlightening us about "secular psychology." :-)

Juno Walker said...

I was raised as a born-again Christian, which mean that I had to turn my life over to Christ and his Will. I never blamed the devil or sin for "falling short of the glory of God", as Paul says. I always blamed myself and wondered why I couldn't be a better person if Christ indeed lived in me. More stringent Christians will remark that this implies I wasn't a true Christian. But I would beg to differ.

Anyway, I am now an atheist and my atheism is a result of my recognition of the truth of naturalism: we are fully-determined creatures who are products of a confluence of our genetic heritage and life experiences. We are "ultimately" neither blameworthy nor praiseworthy. But we are proximately blameworthy or praiseworthy because the actions of nature flow through us; they have their existence in our being and our behavior. They are made manifest through us. So, in that sense, we are responsible for our actions, because these actions didn't occur via anyone else. But our actions are indeed beyond our control, since we are beings who are fully embedded in the natural fabric of the universe.

As Schopenhauer realized, "A man can surely do what he wants to do, but he can't determine what he wants."

One can do a very simple experiment to confirm this. The 18th Century Scottish philosopher David Hume did it: Sit and medidate and try to clear you mind of all thought. You will quickly find that thoughts simply "happen" to you, you do not "choose" to think! Once you have the thoughts, you are certainly able to act on them, but you do not generate them. Many have argued (rightly, in my opinion) that there isn't even a "you" to do the generating - but that's a comment for another day.

If you're interested in how someone lives without belief in God, Free Will, a self/soul, or an ultimate meaning or purpose to life, please check out my blog Dasein & Dharma


Anonymous said...

Hi Juno,

About our supposed responsibility for our actions you said:

"But we are proximately blameworthy or praiseworthy because the actions of nature flow through us; they have their existence in our being and our behavior. They are made manifest through us. So, in that sense, we are responsible for our actions, because these actions didn't occur via anyone else."

This is a complete redefinition of the plain idea of responsibility. Are dominoes "responsible" for knocking over the next domino when you stack them up in a line, simply because the actions of nature flowed through it (Bad domino! I'm putting you back in the box for a long time!)? There is no difference in your view between a domino's action and a human's action. And to say that our actions are "beyond our control" runs contrary to our first-person awareness of our own control over our actions. Try a simple experiment. Choose to do something. It's that simple.

As to Hume's thought experiment, his reasoning is badly mistaken. Just because certain thoughts "happen" to us doesn't mean that ALL thoughts happen to us. Indeed our thought life can have a mind of its own, but that does not mean that we have no control over our thoughts. Indeed, people have achieved various degrees of control over their thought life through many different avenues of discipline. Again, try an experiment. Think about something of your choice. It's that simple. I think Hume's introspective abilities were clouded by his materialism.

We need to trust our introspection, which runs contrary to a naturalistic worldview. When we introspect, we find a "me". A "me" who can choose things, loves things, can change over time due to choices... Otherwise, this "me" is an illusion created by the brain, which IMHO is far less likely than what our introspection is telling us.

As to your orginal article Kevin, I believe you have given an inaccurate caricature of Christian submission to God. Submission does not entail loss of individuality, freedom, personality, etc. If we are God's children, do you think God wants mindless drones as children, never growing up to be adults? Or would God want wise, mature, creative children? God wants us to submit to His guidance because He knows how human life ought to be lived. Jesus came and asked people to "follow" Him, i.e., to be His students, to learn how to live well. Otherwise, we're completely on our own, or learning from other people who don't have it all figured out either.

Juno Walker said...

Anonymous -

You're correct in stating that I am providing a complete redefinition of what most people consider to be 'responsibility.' But you are presenting a false analogy: dominoes are inert and inanimate, while human beings are alive and possessed of the abilities of rationality and deliberation. We can deliberate about the choices with which we are faced and choose among the options. But we are fully determined (with the possible exception of quantum randomness) to choose the way we do.

There are many things which run contrary to our first-person awareness. If the human species relied solely on its first-person awareness to judge reality, we probably never would have made it out of the bronze age. The Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner does and has done numerous experiments on how we perceive the level of control we have over our own actions. I suggest you read his book The Illusion of Conscious Will .

I frequently meditate on my experience of choice. Of course humans can choose to do something. The more pertinent question is, Why did they choose to do what they did? The philosopher Galen Strawson explains this very well in an interview in The Believer magazine. Here's the link .

Our best neuroscience is showing us that, despite our folk intuitions, there is no "me" inside us, there is no Cartesian homonculus making decisions; in fact, there is no one place in the brain "where it all comes together" as philosopher Daniel Dennett says.

Humans used to be convinced that lightning and thunder was a result of the wrath of the gods, that the earth was flat, and that the sun revolved around the earth - all very reasonable assumptions based on the level of knowledge at the time. But as our knowledge of reality has advanced, our folk notions about reality have had to retreat, time and time again.

Thanks for your thoughtful comments,

Cheryl Lim said...

Dear Kevin,

you say having an internal locus of control is superior because you are in charge of your own fate and destiny, rather than surrendering your sense of autonomy and will to a higher power.

Instead of examining the pros and cons of the two different modus operandis, how about drawing from empirical examples as sample proofs of what works?

Has taking control of the will of your life yielded you any good?

When you look back at your life, do you find any situation that clearly and unambiguously prove that you have succumbed your adversities on your own without God and that if you had left it to God, you would have had a bad end?

In my experience, all the times when I tried to achieve my ends with my own means, using my own human resources and making my own decisions, they always ended me up with nothing good. And when I let God take charge and let Him guide my will, when I surrender my will to Him, I know He will never fail me.


Kevin Parry said...

Thank you for all the comments. There are two points that I would like to raise from this discussion:

(1) First off, I’m beginning to agree with the comments that there is a danger of viewing the whole concept of locus of control two simplistically, and (as one reader was kind enough to point out to me in an email) there is a temptation to view external and internal loci of control as two extremes. I think that, as individuals, most of us are a mixture of both in different areas of our lives. To have too much of either external or internal characteristics would probably be quite unhealthy. But I still hold onto the view that it is better to be slightly more internal than external, and a person – although it is wise to seek advice – should make their own decisions when planning their life path.

(2) A question: are individuals 100% responsible for their own successes and failures? Oprah Winfrey and other advocates of the American Dream would probably think so. On the other hand, as Geertje pointed out, some individuals simply do not have (or seem to have) the resources or opportunities to make something out of their lives. I wonder if having a healthy internal locus of control is realizing that luck does play a very small part in our success, but the ‘internal’ part of it comes in by how we take the opportunities that luck has provided to create more opportunities and success in our lives.

To respond to Cheryl: since I left the faith, I have been making my own decisions without the supposed guidance of a supernatural entity. I’ve decided on my career path, and I also made a decision to marry a person I love very much. At the moment, these decisions have not led to tears: I’m enjoying my job immensely, and my marriage to Cori has been going strong for two years. The two main advantages of making my own decisions: (1) I can now make decisions with less fussing (without having to wait for God to ‘reveal his will’ – whatever that means); and (2) I feel a stronger sense of personal ownership for the decisions that I have made on my own. Other than that, I can’t say that the results of making decisions as a Christian was any worse, or any better, than it is now.

All the best

Anonymous said...


You said, "...since I left the faith, I have been making my own decisions without the supposed guidance of a supernatural entity."

How can you be so sure? Just because you haven't consulted Him doesn't mean He isn't guiding your every step. Your own belief or disbelief in God doesn't determine whether He actually exists... and if He does, you're only fooling yourself with the limitations you put on His work.

Just putting my two cents in...


Anonymous said...

I came across your website after googgling for locus control. I am a muslim and I can't comment much on christianity. As I search further I came across this article which I have linked here. I suppose being a person with religion is not as simple as having exclusively internal or external locus of control. You might be interested in reading this

Anonymous said...

Please read about the studies done in psychology:

People who really believe and practice their beliefs tend to have higher internal locus of control.